NASA plans to wipe out the International Space Station – here’s how


The international space The station will eventually be put to rest – following a fiery crash into a ‘starship graveyard’.

Since 2022, the space station has been in orbit for 21 years. As NASA and its partners originally planned to decommission after 15 years, the space station has long passed its original due date. Even with growing security concerns, NASA decided to extend the life of the space station until 2031.

But while the space station has served humanity well, it cannot go on forever.

Why NASA wants to dismantle the ISS

Why would NASA decommission the ISS? After all, the space station is a technical feat – and an expensive one at that. The International Space Station is often cited as the most expensive structure ever built at $150 billion.

Additionally, the station has hosted over 3,000 experiments due to its unique microgravity environment. With that in mind, it seems ludicrous to throw away such an important scientific tool.

However, according to NASA, age does a number on the space station. In recent years, there have been an abundance of security issues on the ISS. Ranging from mysterious holes to leaking modules, the Russian segment of the station has been particularly worrying – although the whole operation is likely to suffer over the years.

As NASA explained in its January 2022 transition report:

“The technical life of the ISS is limited by the primary structure, which includes the modules, radiators and lattice structures. Other systems such as power, environmental control and life support, and communications, are all repairable or replaceable in orbit The life of the primary structure is affected by dynamic loads (such as vehicle docking/detachment) and orbital thermal cycles.

In the name of astronaut safety, NASA has decided to limit the lifespan of the ISS. Until recently, NASA’s tentative expansive plan was to cease operations in 2028, but now the Space Station is proposed for another two years.

Despite recent security concerns, NASA says it has “high confidence that the life of the ISS can be extended further into 2030”.

This graphic illustrates NASA’s targeted schedule for deorbiting the ISS.Nasa

A fiery end

NASA’s “Deorbit Plan” outlines the timeline of events that will occur in order to safely decommission the space station. According to NASA, they will slowly lower the Space Station’s elevation over the few years leading up to 2031. This will be accomplished through what NASA calls “retrograde” maneuvers.

The International Space Station’s altitude actually decreases naturally due to atmospheric drag, so mission control usually directs the station to perform “posigrade” maneuvers, which increase its altitude.

Eventually, the last Space Station crew will arrive around mid-2030. They will be in charge of fixing all the details of the station and setting in motion the last retrograde maneuvers. As 2030 draws to a close, the crew will return to Earth and eventually leave the Space Station alone, once and for all.

While NASA considered shooting it down piecemeal, the agency states:

The modules and lattice structure of the International Space Station were not designed to be easily disassembled in space. The space station covers an area the size of a football field with the initial assembly of the complex requiring 27 flights by NASA since the retirement of the space shuttle with its large payload bay and multiple international partner missions over a period of 13 years. In addition, new hardware has recently been added to the space station, such as the deployment solar panels and the Russian Nauka and Prichal modules. Any teardown effort to safely return individual components would face significant logistical and financial challenges, requiring substantial labor from astronauts and ground support personnel as well as a spacecraft with a capability similar to the large payload bay of the space shuttle.

However, some later modules may be detached for future use by trading partners, although many of these have yet to be released. The agency says:

There are currently no proposals from commercial vendors to reuse major structural parts of the International Space Station, and such plans should take into account the cost and difficulty of reusing these parts of the station. NASA entered into a contract for commercial modules to be attached to a space station docking port with plans for later detachment, and granted space law agreements for the design of three free-flying commercial space stations.

During January 2031, NASA will begin – and complete – the endgame. NASA will verify that the Space Station is aligned with the South Pacific Uninhabited Ocean Area (SPOUA). This is the area around Point Nemo, which is the farthest point on Earth from any landmass. Due to its isolated nature, Point Nemo has become a North Star for de-orbited spacecraft. Known as the “spacecraft graveyard”, there are hundreds of decimated satellites floating somewhere around Point Nemo.

As the Space Station gets closer to Earth in altitude, it actually gains orbital speed. This is because Earth’s gravitational pull is stronger the closer the Station gets.

Soon it will begin to pass through the atmosphere and begin to burn. NASA will attempt to direct the station in a controlled manner to the crash landing zone. Eventually, the fiery space station will rush into the cool waters of the Pacific and sink into its watery grave.

The agency says it expects three separate rupture events on the way to Point Nemo:

  • The solar panel and heaters will initially separate from the station, which is why Mir and Skylab have arrived.
  • Shortly after, the modules and the truss segment will detach
  • As the modules burn and fragment, the truss will lose its structural integrity

As all of this happens, the outside of the modules – the outer “skin” – will melt, exposing the hardware inside to intense frictional heat. They will melt soon after. This means that many modules will be destroyed before they reach Point Nemo – likely by evaporating almost completely. Large portions of the farm, which are more heat resistant, will likely survive re-entry. These are the components that will drown in Point Nemo.

Although there have been a few space stations over the years, (Mir and Skylab), none have lasted as long – or had nearly as much significance as the ISS. It represents a unique opportunity for countries like the United States and Russia to work together in the pursuit of science. It’s called the International Space station for a reason, after all.

Although there are plans for future space stations on the horizon, the ISS will be remembered wherever it is – whether in space or in the depths of Earth’s oceans.


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